Conversations with seniors: How to have an authentic conversation
Pour some coffee, sit back, and enjoy a good conversation. What a perfect way to say, I like being with you. Let’s talk awhile. I want to hear more about you.
As a caregiver, your most valuable offering might be a conversation with your senior family member. Authentic conversation is not only a meaningful exchange between the two of you; it’s a genuine act of kindness and respect.
When you ask someone to share her story, it’s an encouraging invitation to friendship. Your elder’s story might be reminiscent of years past or something amusing from yesterday’s walk through the neighborhood. Either way, it serves as a healthy means of helping your loved one stay engaged.
In Letters to My Grandchildren, scientist and environmental activist David Suzuki writes, “Elders have something no other group in society has: we’ve lived an entire life.” His observation offers a compelling reason to learn from your elders and a suggestion about how to have meaningful conversations – by understanding that an entire life of experience offers a treasure trove of stuff to talk about.
A conversation that’s authentic and mutually respectful is a gift, and like any valuable exchange, the benefits go both ways. Think of it as a stroke of good fortune, because your senior family member has so much to offer.
If you approach conversation with curiosity and an open mind, you’ll gain something new.
Tune into your elder’s wisdom
Meaningful conversations with your aging parent are a full-circle experience. Old age may not be fascinating until you reach it, but as a caregiver, you’re uniquely situated with an insider’s view of what’s to come.
In Women Rowing North, her book about issues facing aging women, psychologist Mary Pipher suggests that as we grow older, our minds become less cluttered. “We can see the relationships between things that happened fifty years ago and the ways we react today. Our ability to make connections and distinctions grows stronger. We live more comfortably with complexity and multiple points of view,” she writes.
As a caregiver or family member, imagine drawing from the wisdom of your aging loved one who perceives the world in this way.
There is also meaning to be gained in the wisdom of appreciating life’s small gifts.
Most seniors reach a point in their lives when they start thinking about how much time they have left. They begin to see minor things – a stroll through the park, a letter from a friend, or early spring crocus in the neighbor’s yard – as items to treasure. For an aging person, little things gain in importance. Nothing is too small to relish.
So it follows that a good conversation can be the highlight of the day. Develop it into a regular habit and it becomes something to look forward to.
Outfit yourself with a conversation tool kit
Whether you’re talking with a family member or new acquaintance, outfit yourself with the tools of good listening, genuine interest, and respect.
- Good listening starts with being attentive – eliminating distractions and mentally screening out other things that may be on your mind. Forget about planning what you want to say next and really focus on what your family member is saying.
- Genuine interest is born of picturing what the other person is talking about and imagining her perspective. Be curious and maintain an open mind. Avoid commenting about your own experience and instead encourage your family member. “Tell me more.”
- Respect comes with the understanding that there is no more important way to spend your time at the moment than being with your family member and enjoying the conversation. Give yourself over to it, 100%. Your body language – good eye contact and nonverbal gestures like nodding and open, relaxed posture – demonstrates sincerity.
The point of taking time for conversation is to experience a warm exchange that’s enjoyable for both of you. You have a lot to learn and your elder has an abundance of life experience to share. Here are a few more things to keep in mind.
- Unless you know your elder has limited ability to process information, talk with him as you would anyone else. Make adjustments if necessary after you get a feel for how well he’s doing with the exchange. Speak clearly but not loudly. Avoid talking too quickly and face the person you’re talking with.
- Stay away from controversial topics unless you know your elder’s opinions are similar to yours. If you’re on the same page, a rousing chat about politics or items in the news can be stimulating.
- Take time to reminisce. Browsing through photo albums is a good way to prompt memories and learn about family history. When your senior is a family member, spend some time catching up on whatever’s new among members of the clan.
- Have a good laugh. There’s nothing better than humor shared with someone. Laughter relaxes your body, helps to diffuse anger, and releases inhibitions.
- Be curious. This is not only a way to get conversations started; it also keeps you attuned to what your elder is discussing. As journalist Guy Raz advises, the best way to get things rolling is to say “I’m curious” before asking your question. For example, “Bill, I’m curious – who do you admire most?” Your curiosity can make you a favorite partner for conversation.
- Avoid elderspeak. It’s insulting and condescending. Elderspeak refers to things like speaking with a higher pitch or a sing-song cadence, replacing “we” for “you” (as in “how are we doing today?”), and referring to a senior adult as young lady or young man. Although elderspeak is usually spoken with kind intent, it conveys a lack of respect for your elder.
- Don’t shy away from conversations that aren’t an even exchange. Even those who are less verbal will enjoy the interaction. Body language plays a role in any conversation. Be open and engaging.
Be observant, just as you would with any partner in conversation. Much of both you and your senior’s direct communication is nonverbal. Facial expressions and posture can indicate boredom or interest. Allow yourself to be guided by her lead.
Keep some conversation starters handy
There’s nothing wrong with a little small talk to get a feel for the mood. Your words and body language demonstrate your sincerity.
- I’m so glad to see you.
- Will you take a few minutes and join me for tea?
- It’s nice to be indoors on these blustery days. Have you seen any signs of spring?
If your loved one has been working on a special project or doing some reading, ask her about it. Being familiar with current interests is a fine way to share her enthusiasm.
Use thought-provoking questions for deeper conversations. If you’re hesitant to ask something, invite him to respond – “Are you willing to share your story about how you and Margaret met?”
- How did you meet your husband/wife/partner? How did you know they were the one for you?
- What has been the best age of your life? What was happening in your life then?
- What do you remember about the place where you grew up?
- What was your first job?
- What did you and your siblings do for fun? What did you do behind your parents’ backs?
- What are you most proud of in your life?
- What was the most embarrassing moment of your life?
Spend some time discussing what’s happening in your elder’s life and in the world right now. Although memories of the past make for fascinating conversation, her story is so much more than who she was years ago.
- Learn about her livelihood before retirement and relate that to something current.
- If she’s involved in any community or volunteer organizations, find out what makes her passionate about them.
- Has she lived in King County for long? Our area has changed a great deal in a short time. Ask her what that’s meant for her and her family.
- Ask, what are some things that make you the happiest now?
Look to reading materials for discussion topics. 3rd Act: Aging with Confidence is a quarterly publication local to the Puget Sound area. It offers feature stories and columns about senior health and lifestyle, resources for virtual and in-person activities, and inspirational glimpses into seniors who are living with purpose. Each issue is full of thoughtful journalism and good material for conversations.
Make conversations with your elder a rewarding part of each day. Start a conversation with your friends at SeaCare In-Home Care Services for more information about caregiving support.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.